Racial concerns prompt renaming of Christian university’s auditorium
OKLAHOMA CITY — For a half-century, the place where Oklahoma Christian…
OKLAHOMA CITY — They left campus in handcuffs.
Fifty years later, they returned to a standing ovation.
Seven former students, expelled and removed by police from the campus of what is now Oklahoma Christian University, were the guests of honor as the 2,000-student school, associated with Churches of Christ, acknowledged a bleak chapter in its past.
On March 6, 1969, in the midst of civil rights demonstrations and protests against the Vietnam War, 18 Oklahoma Christian students — the vast majority of them black — were arrested for trespassing in Benson Hall, their college’s administration building. Demonstrations were not allowed on campus, the school’s leaders said, though administrators have since acknowledged that the accusations were racially based.
Exactly five decades after the arrests, the university celebrated the “Oklahoma Christian 18” in a Wednesday night “Commemoration of the Benson Hall Sit-In.” Seven of the original 18 students attended.
Some had not set foot on the school’s campus since the incident.
John deSteiguer, the university’s seventh and current president, spoke about the institution’s history in race relations.
Some stories were inspiring. During the civil rights era the school’s chorale, led by professor Harold Fletcher, was denied the chance to sing in a church building because one chorale member, George Shirley, was black. So the students gathered in front of the building and sang, “We are one in the spirit, we are one in the Lord.”
“And to you, as president of Oklahoma Christian University, I apologize for the way that you all were treated 50 years ago this morning.”
The song leader: George Shirley.
Other stories were shameful. For those, deSteiguer made apologies.
“I apologize that this institution did not allow black students to enroll until 1961,” deSteiguer said.
“That is wrong,” he added, pausing after each word. Scattered voices in the audience joined him.
Then, stepping away from the podium and turning toward the seven former students on stage, he said, “And to you, as president of Oklahoma Christian University, I apologize for the way that you all were treated 50 years ago this morning.”
From his seat next to the podium, assistant dean of students Gary Jones Jr. watched as deSteiguer spoke. Jones, who facilitates the university’s Black Student Union, worked for months to help make the event a reality.
“I looked across the stage and saw seven people who had been waiting for 50 years,” Jones said. At the moment of the apology, “it was almost like a collective exhale. Everybody’s body language changed.”
Don Wilson, one of the seven, has rarely spoken about his arrest and expulsion in the past half-century, he told The Christian Chronicle. After the incident he returned home to Hartford, Conn., and began working for a bank where he had worked the summer before.
That turned into a 22-year career.
Only in social settings — when party games and ice-breakers included questions like “Have you ever been arrested?” — would he grudgingly acknowledge what happened, speaking only in snippets: “It was the 60s. It was a demonstration.”
The apology “helped me to sort of clear that blockage that I had in my mind,” Wilson said. He hadn’t seen his classmates in 50 years, and learning how much the incident hurt them let him know that he wasn’t alone.
“It was basically like a cleansing,” Wilson said. Now “I’m able to speak about it. I’m able to not be ashamed of what happened.”
THE ‘GATHERING’ AND THE ‘SIT-IN’
What happened wasn’t a demonstration, said Ron Wright, one of the 18 students arrested and expelled from what was then Oklahoma Christian College.
It was, rather, an attempt by the students to discuss an event that had happened days earlier — an event equally mischaracterized by the administration, he said.
Wright, a longtime college president, minister and elder of the Gray Road Church of Christ in Cincinnati, and his fellow former students told their stories during a panel discussion with Oklahoma Christian’s current students a few hours before the apology.
In early March, 1969, they explained, a group of students gathered at a home off campus to celebrate a friend’s new baby. They had signed out of their dormitories for the weekend, as the rules required.
Word reached the administration that the students had been at a party, against school rules and that some of the attendees were white females. The college didn’t forbid interracial dating, the former students said, but the parents of both boyfriend and girlfriend had to approve.
’50 Years: Racial Reconciliation and the Church’ is a series focusing on significant events of the 1960s and the lingering impact. Read all the stories.
The students learned that the “party” was to result in expulsions — something they viewed as a gross overreaction. It had happened off campus while they were signed out, some argued. The college should have no jurisdiction. And it wasn’t a party.
Wright — who had been out of town and didn’t attend the “gathering,” as the students called it — was asked by his classmates to talk to the administration. Their hope was that his strong roots in Churches of Christ would help ease the tension, he said.
Early Thursday morning, March 6, Wright and the concerned students walked to Benson Hall. A few others joined them on the way, including Wilson. He had a check to cash, so he followed the group into the building, which also housed the business office.
Inside, the college’s then-president, James O. Baird, met the students with an ultimatum: Sit-ins are against the college’s rules. Leave in 10 minutes or be arrested.
Some of the students dispersed. Others, including Wright, stayed.
As staffers prepared to call police, Wright pleaded with Baird, “This is your opportunity to show the world how Christians act by talking to us and by forgiving the students who were dismissed yesterday.”
Soon, Oklahoma City police cars arrived. Some of the students were handcuffed, including Billy Brooks, a standout on the college’s basketball team. Others rode, uncuffed, in the front seats with police. Some of the officers expressed bewilderment as to why they’d been called, the former students said.
At the jail, men and women were separated, said Patricia McCauley Kimbro, the only female of the 18 to return for the commemoration. She remembered sharing a cell with two Native American women, but she could hear some of her male classmates not far away, crying.
Fifteen of the students pleaded guilty to trespassing, The Oklahoman newspaper reported. One was dismissed on a technicality — a typo on the police intake form. Two posted and forfeited the $20 bail charge. For years, rumors circulated that Fletcher, the music professor, had quietly arranged for the bail money.
The hardest part, the students said, was calling their parents.
“I was three to four weeks from graduation, and all of a sudden my school was taken away from me,” Brooks said. “It was like my freedom was taken away from me.”
THE AFTERMATH AND THE HATE
Once released, the students were given less than an hour to collect their things and leave campus, the students said. The Oklahoma City chapter of the NAACP, led by civil rights activist Clara Luper, helped some of the out-of-state students find temporary housing.
Two of the expelled students were white females, one of them from California. Kimbro, who lived in an off-campus apartment, housed both of them for about four nights as they prepared for the journey home.
“I got a lot of hate calls for that,” she told the Chronicle. Her parents persuaded her to spend the summer with family in Chicago before returning to study at Oklahoma State University.
“I was three to four weeks from graduation, and all of a sudden my school was taken away from me.”
The students found it extremely difficult to get access to their Oklahoma Christian transcripts, they said. Some, including Wilson, never returned to higher ed. One student, Michael Baldwin, was drafted into the military 30 days after he was expelled.
Some of the former students had friends obtain copies of their grades and send them to other institutions. Wright transferred to another school associated with Churches of Christ, Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and later earned a doctorate from Cornell University.
After his arrest — and before returning to his family in Connecticut — Wilson went back to Oklahoma Christian’s campus and stayed there through the end of the semester, living in a friend’s dorm room and eating in the college’s cafeteria.
No one seemed to mind, he said.
THE FUNERAL AND THE REMEMBRANCE
In the past five decades, Oklahoma Christian students have heard only vague details about the incident, several alumni told the Chronicle.
That includes Jones, the son of a longtime minister for the predominantly black Eastside Church of Christ in Oklahoma City. A graduate of Oklahoma Christian, he began working for the school about seven years ago. His goal: To make the campus more inclusive and sensitive to the needs of its minority students.
He heard through a friend that Wright — who had stayed in touch with the university and had even spoken during its Black Heritage Week in 2002 — had expressed disbelief about Jones taking the job.
“At the time I thought, ‘How dare he,’” Jones said. “Now I look back and see that, in his own way, he was attempting to prepare me for my work.”
In June 2017, the campus mourned the loss of Harold Fletcher, who died at 93. At his funeral, stories about the Benson Hall incident resurfaced.
The stories inspired the university’s current president, deSteiguer, and Jones to look for ways to right an old wrong as its 50th anniversary approached.
Risa Forrester, the university’s chief communications officer, and staff members attempted to contact each of the 18 former students. Four had died. Six did not respond. One, James Burris, didn’t come for the remembrance but visited campus and spoke about the incident on video.
The remaining seven agreed to attend, including Wright.
“If nobody came but me and Billy, I was coming,” he said. “I’m ecstatic — delighted unbelievably — to be here.”
On the night of the apology, “it was hard for me to come to any other conclusion but that God was in that place,” Jones said.
THE APOLOGY AND THE VOICE
Despite the negative encounter on a Christian college campus, Wilson said his faith never wavered. He still worships with the Northside Church of Christ, a 90-member congregation in Hartford. He regrets that the arrests may have given his classmates who weren’t from Churches of Christ a negative impression of the fellowship.
“Life is too short to hold a grudge. I refuse to walk through life carrying a bag of rocks on my back.”
“My grandmother and my parents were members of the church,” he told the Chronicle. They taught him to “never allow the things of this world to separate you from the word of God.”
Kimbro, who now lives in Atlanta, said she was thankful for the long-overdue apology, though she had long ago moved on from the ugly incident.
“I let the past be the past,” she said. “Life is too short to hold a grudge. I refuse to walk through life carrying a bag of rocks on my back.”
As the service concluded, the seven former students gave a standing ovation of their own to Elise Miller, a sophomore at Oklahoma Christian.
Miller, from Dallas, is a journalism major and a Chronicle intern.
“But more than that,” she told the audience, “I am the manifestation of a dream, a prayer, and a movement. I am a product of a group of students, deciding 50 years ago today that they would do something far greater than themselves.
“Fifty years ago today, I wonder where I would have stood. In a jail cell? In solidarity with my brothers and sisters? Or maybe in my dorm room too afraid to come outside.
“Regardless, 50 years later I have a voice, and I intend to use it for good.”
On the morning of March 6, 1969, dozens of Oklahoma Christian College students flooded Benson Hall with hopes of speaking to then-president James O. Baird.
Among their grievances was the recent dismissal of 14 students, most of them black, accused of violating curfew rules by attending an all-night party. They felt the punishment was racially motivated, as white students caught staying out too late were not immediately removed from the college.
Instead of meeting with the students, Baird told them they had five minutes to leave, or else they would be arrested. While a handful of students close to graduation or with difficult family situations decided to leave, the 18 who remained were arrested and booked into the Oklahoma County Jail on trespassing complaints. Sixteen of the 18 arrested were black.
As the 50th Anniversary of the incident approached, Oklahoma Christian University officials reached out to the 18 former students and apologized for disrupting and altering their lives forever.
Four of the students had died:
• Chandler Jackson
• Shannon Jones
• Carl Love
• Laquetta Lusk
Five of the students could not be found or did not respond to the university’s invitation:
• Johnnie Marie Allen
• Loren Fisk
• Thomas Griffith
• Maureen McGuire
• Sarah Reynolds
Administrators also were unable to find former student Paula Smith, but a relative saw coverage of the remembrance and has reached out to the university.
Seven of the students returned to campus and participated in the remembrance ceremony:
• Michael Baldwin
• Billy Brooks
• Robert Edison
• Earl Lewis
• Patricia Kimbro
• Donald Wilson
• Ron Wright
James Burris did not attend the remembrance but traveled to campus recently to appear in a video about the anniversary.
Opening text is adapted from a story by Keaton Ross for The Talon, Oklahoma Christian University’s student newspaper. See related videos at christianchronicle.org.
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